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Five ways to prevent laminitis in Spring

Laminitis: what causes it and how can you prevent it?

Every year the threat of spring grass and its high fructans content alerts us to the dangers to the laminitic horse, and every year new topics and research reviews tell us about the causes, care and treatment of the problem. Although causes can be broken down into physical, hormonal/biochemical and nutritional, all these factors have a common result - inflammation of connective tissue between the hoof and the coffin bone.

There are various factors that contribute to this inflammation, the main ones being blood flow and nutrition.

Why blood flow? 

The hooves are the furthest point from the heart, and blood pressure will be at its lowest. This can lead to pooling and the inability to flush away pro-inflammatory factors. It is not a problem specific to horses; ruminants suffer from acidosis that impacts on hooves, and even rhinos get laminitis!  Improving flow, particularly by exercising horses, can help reduce laminitic cues. There is an increasing body of thought that laminitis can be controlled to some extent by limiting feed intake and increasing exercise; as such this is entirely correct as it encompasses both improving blood flow and factoring in nutrition.

Why nutrition? And why is laminitis such a big topic in springtime? 

The answer is relatively simple - overfeeding and too much sugar! As with people who develop Type II diabetes, too much sugar in the diet can lead to Insulin Resistance (IR) and Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) in horses.

The gut of the horse is designed to ferment fibre in the hindgut to obtain the energy it needs. The foregut has limited capacity to achieve this and diets rich in starch and sugar are not suitable. There is a limit to the sugars that can be broken down enzymatically and absorbed in the small intestine. Large amounts of starch are fermented to lactic acid which cannot be flushed away from the hooves.

Therefore, the rule in feeding the laminitic horse is to ensure the intake of starch and sugars is not too high, the same for protein. The protein requirement for activity is only marginally higher than maintenance, and feeding extra to an active horse is not advisable.

For starch, how much is over-feeding? 

A normal horse should not eat more than four grams of starch (or total sugars) for each kilogram of live weight - and this reduces to two grams for a laminitic. This equates approximately to a ration of 10% starch and sugars. This is where spring grass is dangerous since fructans levels can be as high as 30%!

Laminitic horses and ponies should be kept of spring grass when fructan levels spike. Fructans are stored at the base of the plant and are mobilised into the leaves to support cell growth that occurs during the highest light intensity. Grazing during early morning will avoid these spikes in fructans and so sugar intake reduced. Close cropped grass is an additional danger as the remaining leaf will have extremely high levels. Additionally, fertilising a paddock can actually help! Stimulating growth will help dilute sugars by converting them into structural fibre.

Reducing sugar intake, and keeping protein intake to sensible levels are key features in helping support the laminitic horse. Avoiding high intake of fructans-rich grass is one step, but how can we reduce the risk of laminitis further?

  1. Keep the daily intake of sugar/starch below 10%.
  2. Don’t over-feed protein. A daily intake of 12% will suffice, even for the most active animal.
  3. Avoid raw starch. Bruising or crushing does not markedly improve digestibility, but cooking, such as micronizing, does.
  4. Think about which fibre alternatives should be used. Sugar beet, alfalfa, soya hulls and oat hay are low starch feeds giving high levels of slow release energy, with sugar beet giving the lowest lactic level.
  5. Feed a product recommended for laminitics. These have been researched to encompass the above points and will help maintain the correct hindgut environment, ensuring those bacteria that can cause harm will not be able to grow.

These points will reduce the nutritional inputs on inflammatory and vasoconstrictive processes. Couple this with increased exercise to improve blood flow to the extremities (increasing heart rate will achieve increasing blood flow), then we can look forward to a better prognosis for the laminitic horse.

Speedi-Beet is a highly nutritious micronized (cooked) beet pulp feed which provides an excellent source of digestible fibre and is suitable for horses and ponies susceptible to laminitis.

Due to its unique manufacturing process, Speedi-Beet can be soaked and ready to use in just 10 minutes and is extremely palatable. It is also starch free and unmolassed, making it 95% sugar free.

Feeding Speedi-Beet before turnout can help stabilise the ingestion of sugars present in spring grass.